The Three What-Ifs

It’s my 600th post on Fuldapocalypse. I’ve gotten a lot of books recently on never-were aircraft. Thus it’s fitting to make this post about a pattern I’ve seen in equipment that never was. From least to most interesting, here are the three big categories I’ve seen.

The first is “a different proposal for the same requirements”. This is often the least interesting, because the different proposals are still designed to meet the same goals. Most of the time you get something that just looks different but has similar (theoretical) performance, and sometimes not even then. There can be real and appreciable differences, but they especially aren’t noticeable on the outside.

The second is kind of related to the first, and that’s “a proposal that lost, and whose reasons for losing are obvious”. For instance, it’s very easy to see why the T-8 design won handily for what would become the Su-25 compared to its competitors-and not just from other bureaus. It faced the anachronistic Il-40/102, and some shoved-in kitbashes of existing aircraft (Yakovlev put forward a variant of its not-exactly-ideal existing designs, Mikoyan used something based off the classic Fishbed, and even Sukhoi itself had a derivative of the Su-15 interceptor that looked very little like its “parent.”).

The third is the real fun part, and that’s stuff made with totally different goals. This is where you get all the giant napkinwaffe planes. But you also stuff that’s knowingly lower-performance for the sake of affordability.

Review: People’s War

I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.

But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.

The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.

What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.

Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.

The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.

But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?

Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.

And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.

It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.

But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.

Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.

The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.

Review: Unflown Wings

Unflown Wings

I was somewhat critical of Yefim Gordon’s book on the MiG-29. Yet for his Unflown Wings, showing nearly a century of never-built Soviet/Russian aircraft, I’m far less so. This is an amazing book about amazing aircraft. It’s rightfully massive, covering every major design bureau.

People looking at the weird “Luft 46” German aircraft often overlook that every country had its similar oddball paper planes. And so it is with this book. With many illustrations, one can see everything from the redundant to the too expensive to the too out-there. It’s a lot to make you wonder what could have been, from the cancelled jet-powered maritime patroller to giant seaplanes to my personal favorite, the overambitious “Backfiretomcat” Tu-148 multi-role fighter.

The very nature of this book means that the issues I had with the Fulcrum one are far less so. Because the aircraft here never actually entered service in any event, it means there’s less need for total rigor and one doesn’t have to be “deep”. Breadth is required for this overview, and it’s very, very broad indeed.

This is a very fun, very thick book, and I recommend it to any aviation fan in spite of its size and expense.

Courses of Action

So one of my concepts, well, anyway…

-Intact, with all the cancelled toys USSR going to finally rid themselves of the surviving Ceausescu (I’ve wanted to write a sort of “Soviet Gulf War”). Notably, the only ex-Warsaw Pact state that allows staging and troop support by this point is Bulgaria. (Bulgaria was considered the most politically reliable of them, being a longtime Slavic ally of Russia that did not experience much unrest before the fall).

-This was created using the amazing Map.Army program.

-Heavy OPFOR Operational says that high-level paradrops generally max out around 250 km from friendly troops (Which means 36 hours to catch up even under their most ideal advance rates, four days under the most ideal against a peer opponent, and at least a week under any kind of realistic resistance). The earlier Voroshilov Lectures say 150 km at most in conventional conditions.

That being said, the map!

Three courses of action. These are not specific drop zones but general guidance areas, and yes, I did extend COA 2 into the Ukrainian SSR itself. OOPS!.

Course of Action 1 (not labeled but closest to the border) is the most tame, and features a variety of tactical close-to-support airdrops in the initial advance areas. Course of Action 2 is a deeper operational/strategic drop to secure the other side of the Carpathian Mountains. Finally, COA 3 is the deepest and most daring yet and involves having paratroopers land ultra-deep to quickly establish a presence in the Yugoslav/Serbian border to try and hold off any escape or resistance aid from there.

As for the rest of the plan, it’s pretty much Soviet boilerplate-blast through, charge deep. Bucharest is going to be encircled first and then left to second-line units (including Bulgarian ones) to actually reduce. Romania’s plan in this not-unexpected event was to just stage a prolonged unconventional resistance and use their inevitable-to-be-overrun regular units to buy a little setup time.

The Seventh Marine Division

So with the help of the Spatial Illusions Unit Symbol Generator, I set to work making an alternate historical USMC formation. First, the very name. The name “7th Marine Division” is deliberate to symbolize its fictional nature. In real life, the USMC never had more than six divisions even at the height of World War II.

The 7th Division itself is basically an administrative formation that would never actually deploy in full as one manuever unit. Even its subunits are often unlikely to deploy in full at any one location. Its “line” formations are the following.

  • The Parachute Regiment, a sort of revival of the Paramarine concept. The heaviest formation in the 7th Division (in that it has the light artillery and vehicles that an airdroppable regiment/brigade elsewhere would), it functions as a parachute-qualified light airborne formation.
  • The SOF Regiment, which essentially is just the real MARSOC under a different structure type.
  • The Raider regiment, which unlike the real renamed “MARSOC” is meant (at least on paper) to be a more direct-action focus formation comparable to the traditional Army Rangers.

I’m sure there are very good reasons for not adopting an organization or formations like this in real life. Oh well. This is for thriller fiction and wargaming, after all.

Review: Stalin Strikes First

World War III 1946: Stalin Strikes First

I’ve said before that I don’t really consider 1940s World War IIIs to really be in the same genre as post-Vietnam ones. However, they still meet the very basic definition. One such work was World War III 1946, which was involved in internet controversy about its quality and plausibility before it got commercialized. The first printed installment is Stalin Strikes First.

This is not the most ideal story. The first issue is that its writing system just isn’t that good. It’s a mixture of snippets, conference rooms, and vignettes that never really rise beyond exposition. The second and more fascinating issue is how the war develops, with the Soviets skill on the ground being downplayed while they pull one superweapon in an area of historical weakness after another out of their hats. There’s also a bit of taking primary sources too literally, especially dated ones. Imagine a 1980s World War III where the Warsaw Pact armies could consistently move at their maximum on-paper speeds at the same time that NATO air power was inflicting its maximum on-paper attrition and you’ll get the idea.

This particular book has the Soviets winning the initial advance. And not through their existing strengths or through Red Army-style showing how they can be more than the sum of their parts. No, it’s through author fiat handing them one victory after another on a silver platter. There is obvious enthusiasm put into this book, but I still cannot recommend it. There are just so many better World War IIIs out there.

Review: Our Man On The Hill

Our Man On The Hill

Matthew Kresal’s debut on Sea Lion Press (full disclosure, I’m published there too) is Our Man On The Hill, a story which takes a bit of historical commentary and plays with it. It’s been said that Joe McCarthy was such a blustering bumbler that he actually did damage to legitimate anti-communism. Thus Kresal turns into him being a Soviet agent intended to sabotage the opposition.

Though not exact, this has parallels with Agent Lavender, the book that started SLP in the first place. Both make alternate histories where a conspiracy theory about a huge political figure (Wilson, McCarthy) is treated as true. Both are well researched. And both are excellent reads.

Even though I’m not generally the biggest fan of this kind of political/spy story, Our Man On The Hill is well done enough that I had a blast reading it. I highly recommend this book.

Review: Postwar AANW

The Anglo American Nazi War: Part 2

The first installment of The Anglo American Nazi War, published as Festung Europa, has been reviewed on this blog before. Because the postwar part is A: different, B: worse, and C: deliberately not included in the published version, I figured it deserved a separate review.

The wartime portion can fit, slightly awkwardly, into a certain form of pseudo-historical fiction. For fans of conventional World War IIIs, it can be compared somewhat to Hackett and The War That Never Was. It’s a description of a conflict that didn’t happen written in the style of recounting one that did. There is thus a tiny connection to fiction in general, albeit with the thread leading to another very small niche. It also fits into “AH as a genre.”

The postwar installment lacks even that connection. It’s a pure example of internet alternate history, and one of the big problems I’ve had when trying to review is that internet AH is an extremely insulated subculture that lacks almost any tie to normal literary storytelling. How can you critique the characters if there are none? I’ve had to strain to explain it, with the best I can give being “The outline of a de facto fanfic that uses ‘history’ as its setting”. If that sounds unusual and bizarre, it is.

Internet AH has a reputation for its installments being extremely short, something that actually sets it apart from other serialized web-fics that have a deserved reputation for often leaving War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged in their dust where length is concerned. The more substantive wartime portion takes up over 86% of the words written in the story. What’s left is a series of short infodumps.

Here’s what happens. In an utterly ruined Eurasia, everything from the Channel-bordering regions of France returning to British semi-rule as crown dependencies to the US annexing the Russian Far East as “Western Alaska”, with it later becoming a state, occurs. There’s both a “Russia” and a “Soviet Union.” The remnants of Germany are divided into many Morgenthau Plan-style restricted microstates. All this is told in blocks of exposition that somehow feel even flatter than the wartime ones. Which is a shame because there’s both comparison to another alternate history (in this specific case) and a huge amount of lost potential.

The world that develops is one where the US builds lots of superweapons the author clearly likes, adopts a full-on might makes right policy, has the path cleared for cakewalks despite its historical postwar advantages and lack of historical rivals, and uses them frequently against totally ineffectual opponents who exist purely to serve as live-fire targets. This is very much like The Big One, except it lacks the utter audacity and, in something you’d never have hear me say earlier, literary skill of that series.

Instead of using the power of Mary Sue project management to get the superweapons into service without breaking the bank, postwar AANW just has the US continue to run what amounts to a total war economy, falling victim to the “nine women can have a baby in a month” fallacy of funding always equaling results. Instead of having immortal manipulators with catlike eyes provide unrealistic policy continuity, postwar AANW just has a lazy unshakeable consensus emerge. Even after the US destroys several German cities with space weapons after their uprising had been conventionally suppressed, the result is not a “you kicked them when they were down” backlash similar to the real one (however fair or not) over the atomic bombings of Japan, but rather the even more hawkish party gaining support.

What should be an audacious, massive divergence that could easily serve as the foundation for a distinctive work instead is summarized in only around two dozen pages worth of actual text. This is a shame because the premise of a superweapon-obsessed US that never truly left the wartime era (and its ugliness and excesses) behind could make for a great “AH as a setting” story. It could be a highbrow book about generational change, with the upheaval making the historical 1960s look tame. It could be a thriller as the nation with a bazooka suddenly faces problems requiring daggers.

Instead it’s just the outline of an even more biased late Tom Clancy novel mixed with map trinkets. Instead of being made into a potentially tasty meal, the ingredients were just placed in a bowl and left there, next to other bowls full of uncooked flour, eggs, and spices.